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Deforest Prize Oration :
JOSEPH ERNEST RENAN.
By WINTHROP EDWARDS Dwight, of New Haven. N the company of modern skeptics stands no more in
teresting figure than that of Ernest Renan. It seems such an odd irony of fate by which a man born in an atmosphere of sentiment and devoutness, and trained in the quiet cloisters of religious houses, should be chosen for the part of skeptic on the modern stage. The estimate which the future will make of the man, and of the character and value of the part he played in modern thought, will be equally removed from the acrid criticisms of pious clergy thirty years ago, and from the eulogies of his personal friends at his death less than a year since. But whatever this estimate is, it can only be just, as it takes into account the story of his early life which he told himself, in his later years, with all the charm of complete sincerity.
Renan's birthplace, the quaint province of Brittany, is the last home of that unworldly, unpractical, Celtic race, which material progress has banished to this quiet out-ofthe-way corner of the earth. On that lonely coast is still kept much of the genuine spirit of the Arthurian stories and of the legends of St. Brandan and of the Holy Grail. The very breath of the spirit of the Celt is idealism. It is in his deepest nature, the yearning after and pursuit of some ideal, often wild and impossible, but always sought with enthusiasm and consecration. The quest of the Holy Grail is, in a way, the embodiment of the whole life of the people. Other races have had a far stronger hold upon the things of this world, and have attained its prizes of power
and success. But no race has held so strongly, in its weakness, as in its strength, to the reality of an unworldly hope.
In such surroundings Renan absorbed sentiment and idealism, as a child, with the very atmosphere of the place,
with his love for the old mystical legends, and his reverence for the pure and saintly Breton priests. When he left these influences, it was only to seek the home of the deepest and truest Christian learning in the land. It is hard for us to appreciate the unworldly spirituality of this quiet scholar's life in these places. Yet it was in the midst of this that the great change came for him. These years, in fact, tell the story of how the devout and severe study of Christianity left Renan with not enough faith to be a sincere priest, yet inspired him with far too much reverence to play an odious comedy with this most noble of creeds. The time came, at last, when he withdrew his allegiance 'from the mother church, no longer to be numbered among her sons. For him, henceforth, Science is to be the only guide to life. Yet as he leaves the cloister gates we fancy him lingering a moment in uncertainty. Behind him rises
. the old church, with all the memories and the deepest feeling of his early life. He stands listening, as he said, to the faint chiming of the church bells, calling to holy offices a worshiper who refuses to hear them. Do what he would, those echoes of his early self kept ringing in his ears, till his skepticism seemed only half-hearted, at times a mere crust of affectation over the deeper nature of the man.
Renan remained, to the end, an incurable idealist. In all the varied work of his later life he strove to appear as an avowed disbeliever, a philosopher whose confidence is based on science alone. But his old religious nature was too strong for him.
He attacked the very foundations of the Christain faith; but he tried to persuade himself and the world, that he had not attacked the validity of the faith at all. I believe to have served the cause of religion," he said, "by carrying it into the region of the inattackable, far above partial dogmas and supernatural beliefs. All definition is limitation. The truths of the spirit are wider than any account of them in human speech.” These sentences contain the essence of Renan's belief. They tell us that what he meant by religion was merely an aspiration after the ideal. He had proved to his own satisfaction that religion was an illusion. But, true to his idealistic spirit, he still clung to the religious emotions and aspirations which no longer had any basis of truth.
The ordinary man, who is less of a dreamer than Renan, can find nothing to believe in a fiction like this. If the meaning and the heart be thus torn out of life, it is all very well to say to him, as Renan has said: “Religion consists, for all of us, in singing while we do our work, and in praising God, from morning till night, by cheerfulness, good humor, and patience.” The man will merely answer: “To what end is all this? You say there is no God, how then can we praise him? Why ask us to keep on living our life in terms which you expressly declare have no meaning whatever.” Renan felt that the mass of common workers in the world, if deprived of their religion, could find no comfort or hope in such vague fancies as these. And his solution of this difficulty was heroic. “ Better," he said, “that the people should wor. ship in a narrow and false creed, than be told a truth which they cannot comprehend, and which can only lead them astray.” So he would have them still bring their sorrows and hopes to a God who he says does not exist. And, more than this, the priest, who knows that this is a mockery, is serving the great cause of truth and righteousness by keeping up the pious delusion! Such a cynical notion as this can only come from one whose religion is full of inconsistency. Renan had tried to be a thorough skeptic; but his old idealistic and religious nature held him back ; and he contented himself with pleasant emotions and aspirations, the very objects of which he had set himself to disprove; satisfied himself with an illusion, because he had not the courage to face the doubt which underlies it; made of the mere fragments of a faith which he had destroyed, a new belief which he presented to the world as greater and better than the lost faith. And with all the weakness of his reasoning and the real contradiction of his whole position, he stood for serious men as their guide in matters of faith.
It is only just, however, to glance at another and a sounder side of Renan's work. This odd mixture of idealism and the scientific spirit actually gave keenness and depth to his treatment of historical and social problems. Almost everything he wrote in this direction is suggestive. The Revolution of ’48 in France and the war with Prussia in '70, in particular, were studied closely by him; and no one in France at these crises spoke with so sane a voice. Many of his hard and shrewd remarks fall strangely from the lips of an idealist. But in these matters he has turned Philistine, and is thoroughly at home with the plain facts of life. This rôle of clear-sighted and cynical politician is one which he assumes with astonishing skill. And instead of advocating as we might well suppose, a state of ideal liberty, and of brotherly love between nations, his teaching is exactly the opposite of this. Germany, his type of a successful nation, is strong because she worked out her own organization with cynical selfishness; sought her own ends and gave nothing to the world; but accomplished this by the devotion and self-sacrifice of the individual citizen. Of the future of his own country his prophecy was not hopeful. France can never expect victory over Germany, for she has chosen the worst part, and has sacrificed her national strength to the freedom and luxury of the individual. And though some great impulse may stir such a state from its devotion to wealth and materialism ; still such impulses must grow more and more rare.
All this is of the soundest and the sanest. Such convictions would pass for those of a hard headed conservative in politics; of a practical philosopher who can lay his finger exactly on the spot where national life is ailing. Yet even in this rôle, his idealism at times carried him far into the realm of what is visionary. In his vague way he looked forward to the establishment of a new aristocracy of the intellect; for which, oddly enough, he expected that the lower classes would willingly sacrifice themselves. This sort of thing was Renan's notion of the millennium ; the establishment of the kingdom of God,
with the divine element left out. All this may seem wild and absurd, and in odd contrast to his shrewd political wisdom. Yet such a Utopia, as he built in his fancy, distant and visionary as it is, is in the true Celtic color; and is of a piece with that fair and sunny isle of St. Brandan which lies, according to their legends, in the midst of a stormy northern ocean.
Now that the immediate effect of his work has passed by, we may estimate justly Renan's weakness and strength. His most prominent characteristic is unquestionably his strange dual nature. Now we have the modern thinker who hails science as the only guide to life. The next moment he is the pure idealist, the Celt, clinging to outworn ideals and visionary hopes. In all his works the same twofold character; he is Legitimist and Republican; pronounced skeptic and man of deep faith ; an incurable visionary and at the same time a hard, matterof-fact politician. As surely as one of these conflicting sides of his nature gets the upper hand, so surely does the other appear with its startling contrast. When he is striving to be most matter-of-fact, a note of his idealism is struck, and his whole reasoning rings false. When, on the other hand, he is in his most idealistic mood, his other nature calls him cynically back, to stare the plain, unharmonized facts of life in the face.
Renan interests us because he embodies supremely one attitude of mind of men of thought in his time—a state of mind he did much himself to create. The faith of these men is lost. They are forced to hold science alone as certainty. The first article of this modern creed is that by science we must read the meaning of life. But they cannot take heart to say with the Positivists : “ Let us confess that we do not know and talk no more about what we cannot comprehend. Let us give ourselves to the present, the actual in life; change the subject and ask no more idle questions about its meaning." These men cannot help clinging to vague dreams and hopes, that are really but echoes of a faith they have not wholly lost. They feel sadly that without faith in the ideal of life, in its